Cigarettes, cell phones and other carcinogens

Is it just me or does anyone else find it ironic that the very mobile phones being promoted as platforms for mHealth might potentially increase the risk of cancer? We are looking to smartphones and medical apps to help us live longer and healthier lives, when these wireless devices could in fact be making us sick or even killing us.

I know critics contend that there haven't been enough long-term studies to make a clear conclusion if radiation from cell phones increases the risk of cancer. However, there was enough evidence and data to persuade the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011 to reclassify the radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones from category 3, with "no conclusive evidence" of causing cancer, to Group 2B as a "possible human carcinogen." As a result, mobile phone use is now in the same carcinogenic hazard category as diesel exhaust, chloroform, jet fuel, lead and DDT.

The general rule of thumb is that the "smarter" the phone the more radiation it emits. Not surprisingly, Apple's iPhone Product Information Guide states that when carrying the iPhone it should be kept .62 inches or more away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the maximum levels. And, the user manual for BlackBerry smartphone states that the long-term effects of exceeding RF exposure standards might present a risk of serious harm. However, those standards are in need of an update.

Last year, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report called for a reassessment of exposure and testing requirements for mobile phones. According to the GAO, the Federal Communications Commission's RF energy exposure limit "may not reflect the latest research, and testing requirements may not identify maximum exposure in all possible usage conditions." Government auditors found that the FCC set an RF energy exposure limit for mobile phones in 1996, based on recommendations from federal health and safety agencies and international organizations. Since then, these international organizations have "updated their exposure limit recommendation in recent years, based on new research, and this new limit has been widely adopted by other countries, including countries in the European Union," the report stated. 

But the FCC has not adopted the new recommended limit, says the GAO, and "some consumers may use mobile phones against the body, which FCC does not currently test, and could result in RF energy exposure higher than the FCC limit." 

Yet, cell phones themselves aren't the only potential threat to the public's health. A new study links over 7,000 cancer deaths in Brazil to the radiation given off from cell phone towers. The study conducted in Belo Horizonte, Brazil indicates that 80 percent of the people who live within a third of a mile from any cell phone tower are in the most danger. The electromagnetic fields (EMFs) people are exposed to have been associated with breast, kidney, liver, prostate and lung cancers.

A 2012 report by the BioInitiative Working Group concludes that evidence for risks to health has substantially increased since 2007 from EMF and wireless technologies. The report, prepared by 29 independent scientists from 10 countries, reviewed more than 1,800 new scientific studies. "There is a consistent pattern of increased risk for glioma (a malignant brain tumor) and acoustic neuroma with use of mobile and cordless phones," argues Lennart Hardell, MD, at Orebro University, Sweden. "Epidemiological evidence shows that RF should be classified as a human carcinogen. The existing FCC/IEE and ICNIRP public safety limits and reference levels are not adequate to protect public health."

Nevertheless, with long-term studies still ongoing, it may be years before researchers come up with a conclusive link between cell phones and cancer. That is why cigarettes and cell phones might be an appropriate analogy. As Mayo Clinic oncologist Timothy J. Moynihan, M.D. has said: "It often takes many years between the use of a new cancer-causing agent--such as tobacco--and the observation of an increase in cancer rates." We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, be careful where you put your smartphone. - Greg (@Slabodkin)